We think Railroaded! is a very good film by a great director (Anthony Mann, who would claim the cinematic West like nobody else in the 1950s, elevating James Stewart to Shakespearean proportions in films like Winchester ’73 while maintaining the stark photography and relentless pulp of the noirs he made in the late 1940s) – but before it was saved by the auteur theory it was – and still is – at heart a Poverty Row flick, a cheap movie made by a broke studio looking to make a profit.
Which doesn’t diminish the film.
Perhaps the most impressive quality of B pictures was their formal and commercial malleability, present both in the infamously cheap way they were produced (as the old saying goes, in a B movie the sets shake when an actor slams a door), and in the ways they were exhibited – and re-exhibited, and re-re-exhibited. These qualities, originally products of commercial necessity, are what make these films worth watching now.
As part of a casually desperate attempt to bolster income, Producers Releasing Corporation released Railroaded! not only as a feature film on the usual circuit of lower rent movie houses, but also in an edited version (pared down to a quarter of its original length) retitled Uncertain Guilt, intended for exhibition on television. Uncertain Guilt is probably all but lost, but many of these made-for-TV cutdowns still exist, and some survive the features from which they’re assembled. The short we’ll be showing before Railroaded!, Philo Vance, Detective, is one of these. Released by Screen Gems (responsible for the syndication of The Three Stooges shorts) it’s a cut-down of a B movie nobody we know can seem to remember. It features Sheila Ryan, and some other schmuck who stashes a fresh murder victim in the trunk of Philo’s car for the police to find. Ouch.
In the age of DVD canonization and hyper-auteurism the idea of mutilated features, along with things like the Universal horror cutdowns (ten minute versions of Creature From the Black Lagoon or Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein available in Super 8 or 16mm versions, sound or silent, purchasable at your local Sears!) that populated the home entertainment market before VHS tapes, seems downright sacrilegious. But when you take a look at these reconstituted bits and pieces of cinema, they take on a dynamic that hits their audience over the head before they have a chance to object, or even realize that anything is missing.
In a sense, the cut-downs contain the unelaborated essence of the films they were assembled from. In Railroaded!, the men beat women and the women beat women (and John Ireland nearly always looks like a quivering boy, so startlingly nervous he could never compose himself enough to be an adult) and nearly every shot is so darkly lit that three o’clock in the morning looks like just around midnight. The plot makes sense because it feels familiar, but the film’s substance comes from gestures, gun shots, and a sense of dread that’s created visually. The idea is that when the film is over, no matter how long it has lasted, it’s the gestures that matter. Railroaded! isn’t memorable as a grand, sweeping epic (it isn’t El Cid, after all), but for a bunch of dirty looks. It’s stock footage for our nightmares.
It would be pretty foolish, maybe downright stupid, to suggest that the practice of cutting down B-pictures and horror flicks somehow elevated them to high art, but at the same time, watching the 18 minute cut-down of Philo Vance suggests that even the shoddiest movies are indestructible, every frame is precious, but every frame is precious in its own right. The faces in these films overcome low production values no matter what the context. (JA)